Emmanuel Music delivers an intimate yet deep Lenten “St. John Passion”

March 27, 2022 at 2:14 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Bach’s “St. John Passion” was performed by Emmanuel Music Saturday night.

After being derailed for two years by the pandemic, Emmanuel Church’s tradition of offering a major choral work during Lent resumed Saturday night with Ryan Turner and The Chorus & Orchestra of Emmanuel Music presenting a stirring performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion.

Though Bach’s 1724 score is a pillar of the repertoire, it is not devoid of controversy, particularly on account of its source material’s utilization by some as a justification for anti-Semitism. To be sure, Bach didn’t shy away from his libretto’s angry references to “the Jews.” But neither did he vilify one group over another, as Saturday’s performance reminded. Indeed, in place of a simple us-versus-them dichotomy, Turner and his forces delivered something far more universal in tone and meaningful in application.

They accomplished this through a mix of flowing tempos, lean textures, and, from the vocalists, a preternatural engagement with the work’s text.

Ryan Turner

Throughout the evening, Turner ensured that the orchestra never lost sight of the music’s dancing impetus, be that in the limber flute lines accompanying the aria, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” or the melancholy rhythms underlining the radiant final chorus, “Ruht wohl.” At the same time, he ably drew out the score’s characterful gestures, like the roiling passagework framing the choir in “Herr, unser Herrscher” and the delicate exchanges between alto soloist (on Saturday, the accomplished Carrie Cheron), continuo, and viola da gamba in the aria “Es ist vollbracht!”

The choral group—just thirteen strong—sang with rich tonal blend and expressive immediacy. Their interpretive flexibility impressed, as did their technical agility, both in the work’s big framing choruses and in its pivotal, smaller moments. Part 2’s polyphonic sequences spoke vigorously: “Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter” and “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” bristled with biting energy while the grotesque minuet-parody, “Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig,” tripped mockingly.

Just as striking were the choir’s deliveries of the Passion’s many chorales—each balanced so their dissonances spoke pristinely—and their discreet contributions to the arias “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” and “Mein teurer Heiland.”

The night’s soloists, all of whom are members of Emmanuel Music, proved likewise affecting.

In the taxing role of the Evangelist, tenor Charles Blandy sang with bracing clarity of tone and excellent diction. His understanding and shaping of the part’s texts—especially the lengthy narrations over the latter half of Part 2—were vigorously realized, particularly their handful of extended melismas.

Bass David Tinervia’s Jesus began a bit tentatively but settled nobly. Dana Whiteside brought stentorian vigor to his lines as Pontus Pilate, while Will Prapestis’s “Betrachte, meine Seele” and Jonas Budris’s “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” each unfolded warmly. The urgency of tenor Omar Najmi’s “Ach, mein Sinn” was almost disturbing, but fit, dramatically, with the musical moment.

Similarly fervent was alto Deborah Rentz-Moore’s “Von den Stricken Meiner Sünden,” its burnished low notes glowing. At the other end of the spectrum, soprano Carley DeFranco’s “Zerfließe, mein Herze” floated immaculately.

Ultimately, the overriding effect of the reading served to highlight not just the richness of Bach’s writing but, more importantly, the ambiguities of his setting. Its text-paintings (like the Evangelist’s “weinete bitterlich” – “wept bitterly”) and irony (the strict fugue on the chorus “Wir haben ein Gesetz” – “We have a law”) stood out. So did its humanity: the gripping arias meditating on the death of Jesus held Saturday’s sold-out house in rapt attention.

Even what seemed, as the night began, to be a conspicuous logistical misjudgment—placing the mass of singers in front of the instrumentalists—worked to the interpretation’s advantage. Though the Passion’s initial textures were murky and a handful of spots took some time to settle, the combined forces were, in the end, exceedingly well-blended and the texts always sat front-and-center.

Accordingly, there was a truly communal aspect to this presentation of the Passion story, one that finally involved the audience as well. If the St. John Passion is an “allegory of institutional corruption,” as the program book put it, none of us are unaffected or innocent. What we do and how we act matters. It’s a sober thought but, given the scope of the piece and the requirements of the moment, an empowering and encouraging one, too.

The St. John Passion is available to stream on-demand until April 25. Emmanuel Music next presents Simone Dinnerstein playing music of Bach at 7 p.m. June 4 at Emmanuel Church. emmanuelmusic.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment